He flopped down on the couch in my study, looking pale, upset.
“What is it?” I asked, imagining a bad diagnosis.
“I had to lay off one of my workers today,” he said, fighting tears. “The poor guy says he only has two mortgage payments in his savings account.”
“Any severance package?” I asked.
“If only,” he sighed. “My business savings account isn’t much better than his. I held off as long as I could, but I can’t put the whole business at risk.” He was shaking.
Parashat Behar, the first of this week’s two Torah portions, considers what to do when a “brother” is slipping financially. “And when your brother will be low so that his hand is slipping with you, then you shall take hold of him — an alien and a visitor — and he shall live with you” (Leviticus 25:35).
Given the last few years, do any of us not know someone who has fallen on tough financial times? What should we do, what can we do, when acquaintances, neighbors, friends, relatives, fellow congregants find their hands losing a grip on their finances?
Whether kinsperson, acquaintance or worried stranger in line at the bank — do you have a few extra minutes to lend a listening ear?
Or offer a prayer with or for them?
If you know the person well enough, perhaps you have a room to spare, temporarily, or a little extra money to lend at no interest.
If you know them from shul or the JCC pool, might you have an extra place at your Shabbos lunch table?
Or maybe you can afford to give away the cost of a meal (give it to a rabbi to give away if you don’t know someone yourself who needs it).
Perhaps you could acquaint yourself with community resources that are available and then share that information with those who could benefit. My friend who had to lay off his employee helped him sign up with Jewish Vocational Service for its career services department, and is helping check job listings at ParnossahWorks, a free job search Web site.
Maybe you know someone who qualifies for a Jewish Free Loan for working people with a specific extra need. It only takes a few minutes on its Web site to become acquainted with who can apply for an interest-free loan.
Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice has programs for foreclosure recovery and community investing.
SOVA Community Food and Resource Program (part of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles) operates several food pantries around the Los Angeles area (including the Valley).
If someone is out of work, can you help them find a volunteer position while the job hunt continues? Being useful, feeling useful, can go a long way toward keeping up morale, and developing new skills and possible connections that might help land a job down the road.
“And when your brother will be low so that his hand is slipping with you, then you shall grasp hold of [strengthen] him” (v’hechezaktah bo) says our Torah verse. And Rashi explains, “Do not let him come down completely, but grasp him when he begins to fail.” He compares it to a donkey — when its burden begins to slip, even one person can steady and rebalance it, but if it falls to the ground, not even five people can pick it up again.
Reaching out at the moment of early need can steady a person emotionally, too. An open heart or sympathetic ear can keep a person from isolating. In this economy, there is no shame in losing a job or taking a long time to find a new one. Tell him so. And be on the look out for job openings you can pass along.
The phrase “with you” (imach) occurs twice in this verse and in several verses surrounding it. Why? One commentary says: In order to stress that the plight of “your kinsperson” is not unrelated to your own welfare. In very real ways, we are all in this together.
This week, we complete the book of Leviticus/Vayikra – and as we complete it, we turn once more to the phrase recited each time we come to the end of a book of Torah.
It’s no coincidence that the phrase echoes a word in our Torah verse: v’hechezaktah bo “you shall grasp hold of [strengthen] him,” Parashat Behar says.
Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek. Be strong, be strong and let us strengthen one another, we say as we finish each book of Torah, encouraging, empowering, reminding ourselves that our strength lies not only in the study of Torah, but that we learn together from it how to grasp hold of one another in the tough times and to be there for each other at all times
Lisa Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (bcc-la.org), a Reform synagogue in West Los Angeles.
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